Bronny takes in 'atmosphere' in 4-pt. Laker debut

SAN FRANCISCO — Bronny James made his NBA summer league debut Saturday and was surprised by the warm reception he received in the city where his father played some of his fiercest NBA Finals battles.

“The atmosphere,” Bronny said when asked what surprised him the most after the Los Angeles Lakers’ 108-94 loss to the Sacramento Kings to open the California Classic. “It was more than I expected. I mean, it’s a big game for me, but I didn’t know if people from Golden State would come and rep for me. So that was pretty nice to see.”

James finished with 4 points on 2-for-9 shooting, 2 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 steal in 22 minutes.

Dane Johnson, the coach of L.A.’s G League affiliate, the South Bay Lakers, started Bronny, 19, along with Colin Castleton, 24, Sean East II, 24, Dalton Knecht, 23, and Maxwell Lewis, 21.

“He’s just got to keep learning, keep getting reps and learning how much he’s capable of,” Johnson said. “Like, his body, he can get downhill if he uses his shoulder if he has a little bit of an advantage on somebody. And just building that confidence into him.”

It was a far cry from LeBron James’ summer league debut in Orlando, Florida, in 2003, when LeBron put up 14 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists and fans hid under cars in the players-only parking lot to try to get a glimpse of the prospect when he got off the team bus.

Then again, LeBron was the No. 1 pick and Bronny was No. 55. Still, the level of anticipation for Bronny’s debut was high, with a row of cameras lining the baseline an hour before tipoff to capture the 6-2 guard’s pregame warmups.

Midway through the second quarter, James showed a flash of the defensive promise the Lakers saw when drafting him, stealing a pass and igniting a fast break that ended with a Blake Hinson dish inside to Kyle Mangas for a bucket.

A couple of possessions later, James scored his first points on a driving layup with 5:51 to go in the second, tying the score at 31-31.

“Moments like that can slow it down,” Bronny said of the second-quarter sequence. “Slow the game down for you, especially, because I wasn’t as productive as I wanted to [be] beforehand.”

He missed his first three shots, made one, then missed four in a row before his second field goal came on a 19-foot jump shot midway through the third quarter.

James’ summer league debut marked his first game action in nearly four months, when his collegiate career ended unceremoniously with USC losing 70-49 to Arizona in the Pac-12 quarterfinals and James logging 3 points on 1-for-5 shooting, 1 rebound and 1 steal.

There were some signs of rust Saturday, especially when it came to his shot.

“I was trying to get downhill as much as I could to open up the 2-ball, and the midrange, and the 3-ball,” Bronny said after going 0-for-3 from deep. “Couldn’t get the 3-ball to fall, but with all the reps, it’s going to come more smooth.”

Speaking to reporters following the first day of USA Basketball’s training camp in Las Vegas, LeBron shrugged off any statistical struggles that Bronny might face.

“What he does in the California Classic and summer league, it doesn’t matter if he plays well and it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t play well,” LeBron said. “I just want him to continue to grow [from] practices, film sessions, his individual workouts. You can’t take anything stat-wise from the California Classic and summer league and bring it to once the season starts. So, the only thing that matters is him getting better and stacking days.”

Knecht, the Lakers’ No. 17 pick in the draft, scored 12 points on 3-for-12 shooting. Blake Hinson, who signed with L.A. on a two-way contract out of the University of Pittsburgh, led the team with 17 points, going 5-for-7 from 3. Guard Tommy Kuhse, who graduated from St. Mary’s in 2022 before playing overseas, also stood out with 15 points, 8 assists and 2 steals off the bench.

The Lakers play two more games in the California Classic — Sunday against the Golden State Warriors and Wednesday against the Miami Heat — before heading to Las Vegas, where they’ll open up against the Houston Rockets on Friday (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

“He’s going to play — granted, if he’s healthy — throughout this whole thing,” Johnson said of the plans for Bronny for the rest of the Lakers’ summer league slate. “We’re going to try to integrate him and try to get him as many reps as we can. Because he needs more experience playing. And especially the NBA game. It’s a little different than college, so getting reps in the NBA, in an NBA setting with good players will help him in the long run.”

Saturday was just one part of that process for Bronny.

“Every first game that I step into the next level, it’s always some butterflies in my stomach,” Bronny said. “But as soon as the ball tips and we go a couple times down, it all goes away and I’m just playing basketball. So it’s always going to be there, but I’ll get through it.”

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